Hurricane Maria flattened Puerto Rico’s electrical grid. Crippling debt and Donald Trump’s dismissive approach to aid limit its ability to rebuild. Enter Elon Musk, with an offer the shattered U.S. territory may find it hard to refuse.
For Tesla’s visionary CEO, the chance to rebuild an entire economy with a distributed, solar+battery electricity supply represents his company’s biggest opportunity yet to showcase its abilities.
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Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló was the first to reach out. “@elonMusk Let’s talk,” he tweeted. “Do you want to show the world the power and scalability of your #TeslaTechnologies? PR could be that flagship project.”
Hours later, Musk fired back: “I would be happy to talk. Hopefully, Tesla can be helpful.”
Even earlier, in fact, as CleanTechnica reconstructs the public courtship, Musk had responded to another tweeter’s suggestion that his company “go in and rebuild #PuertoRico’s electricity system with independent solar & battery systems.”
Replied Musk: “The Tesla team has done this for many smaller islands around the world, but there is no scalability limit, so it can be done for Puerto Rico too. Such a decision would be in the hands of the PR govt, any commercial stakeholders and, most importantly, the people of PR.”
But it appears to have taken Rosselló and Musk little time to cement at least a working understanding over the course of a phone call.
By the end of last week, Musk revealed—again by tweet—that Tesla was delaying its much-anticipated reveal of a prototype electric-drive semi-trailer tractor, diverting resources to Puerto Rico and to address what he had elsewhere conceded was the “production hell” keeping output of the company’s critical Model 3 electric car to a fraction of its forecast numbers. The company, Musk tweeted, was “sending experienced installers from continental US to hire & train local team as fast as possible.”
Tesla, CleanTechnica notes, “had already shipped hundreds of its Powerwall battery systems to be paired with solar panels” on the island, and has had technicians there helping to repair and connect solar arrays. The company also has experience with system-wide—as distinct from single-site—installations, observes the United Nations-affiliated Climate Action.org: “Tesla has already done similar battery and solar power projects with the Kauai Island Utility Cooperative in Hawaii and in American Samoa.”
According to that outlet, at least one resident island solar installer worried that high-flying Tesla’s involvement could cost his company 20% of its business—but there seems certain to be plenty of work to go around. Tesla’s earlier small grid-scale projects, and even its giant 100-megawatt battery now half completed in South Australia, would be dwarfed by the challenge of repowering Puerto Rico’s 3.5 million people with a distributed network of solar/battery microgrids.
More than 90% of households and commercial customers on the island are reported to be without power, and Rosselló warned last week that it may be a month before even a quarter of Puerto Ricans can again count on electricity. Some may be off the grid for as long as six months, the territory-owned electric company warned.
Tesla isn’t the only off-island company coming to Puerto Rico’s aid—or seizing the opportunity to do so, depending on your view.
Houston’s Sunnova Energy Corporation was also sending “energy storage systems to Puerto Rico,” Renewable Energy World reports, “as part of an effort to solve the immediate needs of Puerto Rican solar customers, and to create a more resilient, long-term power service for the island’s energy infrastructure.”
“Prior to the storm, Sunnova had just under 10,000 systems installed” on the island, CEO John Berger said in a statement. “Right now, we are working to get those systems back online and to provide our customers with battery storage, to provide critical electricity services while the work to restore and rebuild the grid commences.”
Berger described solar and batteries as “a necessity” for the resilience of Puerto Rico’s electrical supply, both in the short and long terms, according to the outlet.
With that kind of enthusiasm from mainland companies eager to showcase their solar+storage microgrid chops on his battered island, Rosselló may find he has an opportunity too: to court the best deals from rival suppliers of short- and long-term relief.